3 Questions You Must Ask Your Characters — A Guest Post by C. S. Lakin

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by Larry Brooks on April 8, 2012

Do you talk to your characters? Should you?

If you’re going to write a truly believable novel, then you need to know your characters to the core of their souls. And the best way to get to their core is to ask them three simple questions.

Leon Surmelian in his book (written forty years ago) Techniques of Fiction Writing, has this to say about creating characters in fiction:

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out, and this is necessarily so because the human personality remains a mystery, subject to obscure forces; it is a universe it itself, and we are strangers even to ourselves. Characterization requires self-knowledge, insight into human nature . . . it is more than impersonation.”

Getting Real Doesn’t Happen on Its Own

That quote contains some terrific stuff. Too many characters are just that—impersonations of real people.

In order to create real characters, you have to become somewhat of a psychologist and learn about human nature. Suffice it to say, most of the novels I edit and critique fall way short on creating real characters. And I don’t think it’s only due to not spending enough time working on them. I sense that some of my clients spend a whole lot of time thinking about their characters, but their creations still come across flat and stereotyped.

It may have something to do with laziness and not wanting to work too hard to create each character. It may be that the writer doesn’t think characters have to be all that developed—that as the plot unfolds, the character will just “come into his own” and become real. I’m thinking, though, the real reason is the writer hasn’t gone deep into herself and examined why she is who she is.

I’m not suggesting we all go into therapy for a while or spend years psychoanalyzing ourselves (although some of us—writers especially—might benefit from that). But if we do some digging inside, we’ll find there are certain truths about why we are the way we are. And the first idea I’d like to throw out at you is tied in with persona and true essence. Basically, we all present a face to the world—a face we feel will help us survive—which is not wholly who we are. Some people may really live in that place of “true essence” and that’s great. But populating a novel with characters like that just give us “happy people in happy land.” We’re more interested in flawed characters, and I bet, if you’re like me, there are some serious flaws lingering under the surface.

Getting to Know You

So, I’m going to share one technique I use when I sit down to create my characters.

I already at this point have my characters in mind. I know my plot and premise, and I either may already have a lot of the story worked out, or I might have only a germ of an idea. It doesn’t matter. But at some point I will sit down (for numerous days) and spend time creating the characters that are going to be the heart and blood of my novel. This time spent is crucial to me, and I never begin writing a novel until my characters are so well fleshed out that I know pretty much everything I need to know about them. And I’m not talking about what they like to eat or what movies they watch. That stuff is inconsequential—trust me. Those little bits about character that come out in your novel are only flavoring, not meat.

Most of my novels have up to a dozen main POV characters, so every one of them must be totally real—to me. I don’t let them run off and start behaving without getting to that place first. I can’t stress enough how vital it is you do this in advance of writing your book. Some writers think it’s fine to just start writing and let the characters run amok to see what they’ll do. That’s all well and good if writing to you is a crapshoot. On the other hand, if you want to write a very specific story and convey very specific themes, this just isn’t going to work. You may be brilliant but you’re not that brilliant, okay?

The Three Most Important Questions

I write down my list of main characters on a page. Or sometimes I’ll do this on the first page of my character sketches. Then I spend some time asking my characters these three questions:

• What is your core need (and what you will do if you can’t get that need met)?

• What is your greatest fear?

• What is the incident(s) that wounded you early in life that got you believing a lie? (And just what is that lie?)

These three questions are so helpful and powerful that it’s just possible they are all you need to create each character. The last question is the most crucial and the one I spend the most time with. Each of us has been hurt in the past. Because of that hurt, two things resulted:

• One: We created a false persona to protect our heart. Like the girl who is abandoned by her father when she was young and now can’t get close to men or stay in a relationship long. If you look at yourself, you will find something in there like this. Somewhere in your past you got hurt, and so you’ve formed a persona to survive in the world.

• Two: That hurt makes us believe a lie about ourselves and the world. In this example the lie this girl believes is that all men walk out and always will. That she can’t trust men or give her heart to them. And that’s why her whole life she’s kept her distance. That’s the outward lie. The other side to that lie turns inward (and you need to look at both parts—they are two sides of the same coin). That part says something about yourself. With this example, the girl believes a lie about herself—that she’s not worthy of being loved.

Need = Fear = Lie (Repeat)

Ah, do you see that? That’s rich, deep, and powerful.

Okay, that character type is used a lot, especially in chick flicks, but I hope you can see here how we’re getting to the heart of motivation. Now, when you put this girl in various scenes, she is going to react certain ways based on the lies she’s been telling herself her whole life and the lies she believes about other people. This then ties in with her greatest fear (fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment) and her core need, which is . . . have you guessed it? See the connection? Her core need is to get the very thing she believes is impossible because of the lies she believes. She wants more than anything to be loved, but she can’t get there. She’s blocking her own way.

Hopefully, these three questions will grow in you to where they are the first and foremost things you ask your characters. They speak to the core of motivation, and that’s where you’ll find the heart and believability in the characters you create. So talk to them, and let them reveal themselves. You’ll find your characters will be compelling, complex, and most importantly—human.

C. S. Lakin is the author of twelve novels, including the seven-book fantasy series “The Gates of Heaven.” She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, including her Zondervan contest winner Someone to Blame. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach the craft of writing. Her websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life: www.LiveWriteThrive.com and www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com.

You can read more about her and her books at www.cslakin.com.

Follow @cslakin and @livewritethrive. Facebook: C. S. Lakin, Author, Editor.

{ 30 comments }

sharkbytes April 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Good stuff. I’m thinking about how to apply this. I’m trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge blogs this month.

R. E. Hunter April 8, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Thanks, good tips, especially the three questions. I’m going to try to apply this to my characters.

Miriam Pia April 9, 2012 at 4:45 am

That was incredible! One reason is that although I have given thought to characterization this is a good reminder that in fiction, as in real life, the plot and the characters are interdependent – not codependent, lol. Really, anyways, thanks for the tip. Especially with the bonus of ‘free psych tip from a novelist’. Wild, deep, intense. I never would have thought of the 3rd question, believe it or not.

Pegg Thomas April 9, 2012 at 5:25 am

I love the questions! That’s really boiling it down to the basics. Good stuff!

Jade April 9, 2012 at 7:03 am

Wow, this was a Fantastic post!!!

Those questions really made me think, forcing me to boil down my own characters. I thought I had really gotten creating and developing characters down pretty well, and though I could answer all those questions, it got me thinking that there were some points I need to work on.

Bravo! Thanks!

Amy Warwick April 9, 2012 at 8:41 am

Larry,

This is a great blog. I recently started my third book and had just completed all of my character sketches. I am going to add another section on each of them asking these three questions and see if it helps me to flush out any more information. I totally agree about talking to your characters. I go for long drives and have conversations out loud with, or about them, and that really helps too! Thanks again!

Amy

angela ackerman April 9, 2012 at 8:42 am

This was really insightful! I struggle with characters at times, and these questions will allow me to go deep. Thank you so much for posting this and sharing your experience.

Angela Ackerman

Jessica Flory April 9, 2012 at 8:42 am

Wow. This is pure genius!

Amy Warwick April 9, 2012 at 8:55 am

In addition to my previous post, I ended up adding a fourth question to the original three once I nailed down the wound and the lie they were living. I asked: What are you doing currently to compensate for the lie that you are living. In my character’s case she committed one moral indiscretion in her young adult life that made her feel untrustworthy and irresponsible. She has been compensating for that for the past twenty years by being completely obsessive/compulsive in her professional and home life. The fourth question for me really explained her personality and added to the drama in her life.

Thanks again…now back to work!

Frederick Fuller April 9, 2012 at 9:19 am

Excellent, Larry. Thanks to C.S. Lakin, whose tip resonates with me like the sound of a locomotive whistle in the night.

In another life I was an actor, trained in the Meisner Technique that demands preparation that includes going “deep” to find the character and your relationship to that character. As an actor I was very aware of the “moment” my character and I were in because that could change from performance to performance depending on my experiences that day.

Once I played Shylock from “Merchant of Venice”, a character that traditionally has been presented as a clown in ridicule of Jews. However, I have always disagreed. I think Shakespeare could have been saying that Shylock is a victim of the dominant culture around him, that of Christians. I think Shylock gives that away in his reference to “being foot(ed) as you spurn a stranger cur.” Also, he genuinely loves his daughter, but is furious that she has run off with a Christian. So, for me, Shylock is a character that has been abused, and like a dog that is cornered; he lashes out when given a chance with the pound of flesh bit.

When I stepped on the boards to perform, I knew Shylock. His name is Avram Zarfatti and he’s close to 60. Etc., etc., etc. Shylock was the name he used in business. His name was never known because the devil might steal his soul (old Jewish myth).

Anyway, it was an arduous study, but I think my Shylock was great.

The Meisner Technique is not only useful for actors but also for writers, especially playwrights concerned with their characters. I recommend writers study it and practice the lessons included.

So, I say to Ms. Lakin, right on? Let the play begin.

Felicia April 9, 2012 at 10:19 am

Thank you for such a wonderful article! I write mostly soap opera style social drama (I have an old fashioned radio soap opera and I am developing two night time social dramas) and what I love most about these projects – the character development! Through this article you have helped me ‘kick it up a notch’. Again, thank you for the article and thanks for being such a wonderful writer’s source!

Curtis April 9, 2012 at 10:22 am

@Miriam. “…interdependent not codependent..” I loved that! Probably one of the best response / insights I’ve read here in a long time.

P.S. I’m guessing if you wouldn’t have thought of the third question, your characters or short on whine and long on inner strength. And, if “she / he” has a hurt she /he doesn’t play the victim well or often. Just a guess.

@ Ms. Lakin. Your insight I found interesting “…what … got you believing a lie?” I’m thinking that could be a free standing question and one not always sourced in pain. I’m thinking following the lie creates the pain.

The “lies” we believe are legion and are so powerful and assumed that they go both unrecognized and unquestioned. They are expected, when fulfilled , to satisfy valid needs. Being a lie, they can’t and don’t. But, since they are understood as answers not lies, we use them as the way to satisfaction again and again. Unrequited love is more than a romantic notion. There in is the pain.

Relating this to the Six Core Competencies.

It seems to me, if we Identify the Big Lie in a story we have the “Theme” of the book. We will also have enough turmoil to resolves in and for ourselves that write a book with at least a smidgen of power and passon.

Tom Babington April 9, 2012 at 10:40 am

Loved the 3 questions. As I read them and mulled them over, I kept thinking about Larry’s admonition to have our characters be three-dimensional. I have been trying to break the code on how to get to that point with my characters, and I think I now have some artillery!

Thanks C.S., and thatks Larry.

Debbie Burke April 9, 2012 at 10:50 am

C.S., great insightful post. Love the lie question. That opens up realms of possibilities.

@Curtis, Big Lie = Theme. Brilliant deduction.

Thanks for another tool in my kit.

Jaesi April 9, 2012 at 11:03 am

Yes, I think getting the character’s wants, desires, fears, and habits all figured out in the beginning is best!
I work in the acquisitions department of a publishing company and often run into awkward characters that share too much painful memories and weakness for my taste. I believe writing can be very therapeutic and I understand that a character is a way for the writer to detach their pains and weaknesses. However, is that what you want to share with others? Get everything out on paper, but then recreate it into something inspiring.

chen mingi April 9, 2012 at 11:12 am

Nice, yet scary in a way.
Those three questions really get into the heart of someone’s character, and not only when they’re fictional. :-)
In fact, I’ve noticed that those three questions are helpful with getting to know someone.
While doing various personal-growth workshops and dating, I’ve also learned that many people haven’t looked into their own answers to those questions, and even get defensive at the idea that they may be telling and living a story.
C. S. Lakin is pointing out some valuable keys toward unlocking characters: real, fictional, or purely concidentally resembling any of us.

Martha April 9, 2012 at 12:21 pm

This is good, even great stuff. Thanks for sharing it.
I agree that talking to my fictional characters is an excellent way to get to know them–to learn things about them I didn’t know before; things that surprise me. It does, however, make people at Starbucks stare at me for a minute, then get up and move to a different table.

Curtis April 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

@Debbie. Thank you. I just re-read my last sentence. Next time, I’ll try not to type and chew on my shoe strings at the same time. :-).

c. s. lakin April 9, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Hey, sorry guys for joining the party late. I missed the last bus and had to walk the last few miles! But thanks for the cool comments. Funny, though, some people on LInkedIn (where I posted this link) got really mad at me! They feel it’s stupid to have characters with flaws and issues and past hurts. Excuse me, but the last time I looked we were all human, and even if you have a protagonist who is an alien or even a dog (like Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain), I feel you are just not going to entice and interest your readers unless there is some humanity buried in there. Maybe we all don’t have deep hurts or believe deep lies, but we all put on a face to the world and I am sure it’s not always 100% true to who we really are and there’s a reason behind it. Well, for what it’s all worth–I like messy characters with lots of problems and I like to see them go through experiences that help them learn and grow into something bigger and better through their self-realization and pain. There are lots of methods tauhgt on how to create deep, believable characters, but for me, those three questions are pretty much all I need to get at their heart. The rest is just layers on top of that.

If you want to read about some of my messy characters, check out my new release (eBook) Intended for Harm. I plotted that book all around the lie each of the nine main characters believe due to the hurt they suffered earlier in life. It’s fairly obvious as you get to know them, but rich characters came from that exploration. I also assigned each character an element (fire, water, earth, metal, air, etc.) and used that as their motif and personality. Check it out if you want to read a long family saga: Here’s the link to Intended for Harm: http://www.amazon.com/Intended-for-Harm-ebook/dp/B0077HCUTI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334024742&sr=8-1 (Okay sorry for the self-promo but it’s really a good book!)

Terri Osburn April 9, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I’m starting a new MS with characters who were in the previous work, so I thought I knew them. But I just asked them each these three questions and can’t believe how much killer stuff I found in the answers. Amazing. Thank you so much!

Curtis April 9, 2012 at 9:29 pm

@ C.S. One of the lies I put down a very very long time ago. ” Curtis, you must be politically correct.”

To wit: The folks you mentioned on Linkdln. So they like characters as cardboard cut outs? I would love to know what they read because I have a
sneaking suspicion they don’t publish much.

And, what makes a guest post here find a different response than your Linkdin experience — Storyfix has already been through the ” members of the peanut gallery -who-post- thinking- they- know-more-than-Larry-phase.” Eventually, even the most derelict Somalian pirate figures out the need to navigate by the North Star or paddle around only in the shallows.
( Well, maybe just a small concession to political correctness.)

Susan Howe April 10, 2012 at 6:08 am

Thanks for this. Even though I only write shorts, I will always bear these questions in mind.

Orenthal April 10, 2012 at 7:10 am

I learned this technique 10 years ago when Holly Lisle wrote extensively about it on her website.

J. R. Nova April 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm

This was a very good read. I’m always harping on how writers need to understand psychology, but you’ve taken it much further than that, and I thank you.

LKWatts April 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Excellent advice, thanks very much. I will try these tips out when I write my third book :)

Lucy April 13, 2012 at 10:30 am

I like it. Fits perfectly with Kal Bashir’s Loss of State of Perfection and Overcoming Limitations and Fear of the New World / State: http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

C. S. Lakin April 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm

So, I would like to invite you all to get on the bus and come over to my part of town at http://www.livewritethrive.com. Like your host Larry, I have a blog dedicated to the writing craft and teaching writers how to get to the heart of their story. I’m also a bit of a rebel and have a weekly section on publishing trends and how writers can shift to indie and self-publishing with success (and why they should). So come on down and share some thoughts, and I hope to be showing up on Larry’s doorstep again later this year.

Christopher April 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm

This is a real eye-opener!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gordon Abbo April 21, 2012 at 10:18 am

Excellent post. There’s a lot of psychology involved, and it helps to know yourself.

Pauline Mac June 29, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Thank you! I’ve been worried about my MC’s, and how to get readers to love them as much as I do. You have given me a way to do this.

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